Last year when Roger McDowell replaced Leo Mazzone as the Atlanta Braves' pitching coach, I remember thinking about the enormous pressure he would be under taking over for such a loved individual in the Braves' Nation.
"Man if the Braves don't make the playoffs next season," I thought, "everyone's going to blame Roger McDowell."
Sure enough, the Braves are not going to the playoffs this season, and Roger McDowell is already getting blamed by some of the fans.
And those folks are barking up the wrong tree.
It's easy to point the finger in that direction, since we all know the pitching has not been great. The Braves enter Tuesday's game with the New York Mets 13th in ERA in the National League with a 4.70 mark. If that figure holds up, it will be the second worst team ERA in Atlanta history, behind the 4.85 stat compiled by the 1977 Braves' staff.
Mazzone's teams, from 1991-2005, had a combined ERA of 3.53. Although it should be pointed out that from 1991-2002, Tom Glavine's last year with the Braves, that combined ERA was 3.42. From 2003-2005, when Glavine had left and Greg Maddux's career in Atlanta was coming to an end, the combined ERA was 3.94.
While no one is discrediting Mazzone's contributions to the Braves, it's also very fair to point out the ease of his job with three future Hall-of-Famers. I think we all knew that once the trio of Glavine, Maddux, and John Smoltz broke up, it was going to be much more difficult to keep the gold standard of Braves' pitching. It's unlikely we'll ever seen a trio like those three again, and to expect that level of excellence to carry on without them was perhaps unrealistic.
But nonetheless, McDowell was under the spotlight this season taking over for the popular 'Rocking Leo.' He inherited a group with a lot of questions, and ends the season this week with about half the arms he expected to be on his staff.
No one could have predicted the enormous amount of injuries that would hit McDowell's pitching staff. We sometimes forget to include Mike Hampton, who has been out since the summer of 2005. But losing your third starter before the season even starts is never a good thing.
In spring training, McDowell expected Horacio Ramirez, John Thomson, and Kyle Davies to be the bottom three in his rotation. But all three missed at least half the season. It forced the Braves to turn to the likes of Travis Smith, Jason Shiell, Kevin Barry, Oscar Villarreal, and Lance Cormier to step in and start. Those five are not exactly the group you can expect to get you to the playoffs.
And the bullpen was a mess from day one. Blaine Boyer and John Foster were both penciled in last winter, but both were hurt and missed the entire season (yeah Boyer pitched in two games, but that's pretty much the entire season). Joey Devine was expected to be a force behind Chris Reitsma and even challenge him for the closer's role. But instead, Devine was pushed out of a job after a terrific spring training, then got hurt, and is finally back showing why he has so much promise.
Let's face it: Roger McDowell could have never predicted that guys like Ken Ray, Chad Paronto, and Tyler Yates would be the main setup men in his bullpen. If he had known that back last November, he might have never accepted the job.
Of course, the easy question to ask is, "Could Mazzone have done any better?" Well, could Mazzone have patched together a rotation any better? Did he ever have to deal with losing four starters in one year? Did he ever have to deal with a bullpen like this one?
No. No. No. No.
There is nothing Leo Mazzone could have done differently to change the outcome. Nothing. It was a mess from day one, and none of it should be blamed on McDowell. He has done the best job possible under horrific circumstances, and there have been bright examples of how he's helped this staff, despite the unimpressive numbers.
It's not easy to always see how a pitching coach helps his pitchers. Yeah, some of them will come out and talk about working with their coach and how he's helped here and there. But if stats don't tell the story, sometimes we just don't know.
But McDowell has helped his pitchers a great deal this year. Look at the funk Tim Hudson has been in, but also know that Hudson himself credited McDowell with helping him get out of it. McDowell straightened Hudson up a bit, getting him taller on the rubber before he delivers the ball. He's also helped Oscar Villarreal discover his split-finger, and Macay McBride raves about how McDowell has helped him with his stride.
And even more important is the attitude on the staff. McDowell's pitchers really enjoy working for him. He actually talks with them and communicates, and for a staff of mostly young arms that is very important. Go ask any one of those pitchers about McDowell, and you get the same glowing response. There is no rolling of the eyes this year when you ask about the Braves' pitching coach.
McDowell does not deserve to be judged on this year alone. Let's see what he can do with a much better group of pitchers, and if the injured arms return next spring, the improvement will be immediate. Remember, you can't make chicken salad out of chicken poop, and that's exactly what the bullpen was for most of the season.
So call it bad timing, bad luck, or whatever. But the Atlanta Braves pitching staff just fell apart the same year they got a new leader. But it certainly was not Roger McDowell's fault.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can also be heard regularly on the Braves Radio Network. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don't blame Roger McDowell
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